Expansion of the Muslim dominion during Khilafat-e-Rashida

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Fazal Malik, Canada

The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah is of paramount importance in the history of Islam. It set the stage for the expansion of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and set the precedence for the expanding boundaries of the Muslim dominion in North Africa and Asia Minor during the time of Khilafat-e-Rashida. Although many Muslims initially viewed it with bitterness, the result was a great triumph.

The treaty allowed some of the greatest Arab warriors and enemies of Islam to witness its peaceful nature and embrace it. These included the Holy Prophet’s uncle, Hazrat Abbasra bin Abdul Muttalib; Hazrat Khalidra bin Waleed – the Sword of Islam; and Hazrat Amrra bin al-Aas – later to be conqueror of Egypt. As a result of the treaty, the Meccan leadership, which had banned Muslims from entering the city, welcomed Hazrat Muhammad Mustafasa as their head in less than two years.

Shortly after the victory of Mecca, the Holy Prophetsa passed away. His demise was monumental on many fronts. The Muslims were now without their Prophet, and the Arabian Peninsula without a king. Allah guided the Muslims towards an able leader and Hazrat Abu Bakrra was elected as the Khalifa. It was a historic moment as never before in their history had the Arabs pledged allegiance to one person in unity for a reason other than faith. Every clan, every tribe had remained independent before the advent of Islam, and here they stood as brethren, one to another.

Ridda Wars

With the news of the demise of the Holy Prophetsa, the political situation of Arabia began to change. Four claimants of prophethood had started instigating the Arabs who were geographically removed from Medina to revolt. Most powerful of them was Musaylima who had raised an army of 40,000. Siding with a false prophetess – Sajah bint al-Harith – he was planning a hostile takeover of Medina.

When the news of unrest and rebellion caused by the false prophets reached Medina, Hazrat Abu Bakrra had already dispatched the army to the Syrian frontier.  A short background is needed to understand why this occurred at such a sensitive time.

The enmity between the Byzantine and Persian Empire is old, with the attacks on the Arabian soil dating back to early 5th century, about 100 years before Islam came into being. With the advent of Islam, the attacks became more focused and intense.

Upon return from Hajj in 629 AD, the Holy Prophetsa learnt about the possibility of an attack on Medina from the Syrian front. He dispatched a party of 15 people to enquire about the situation, all of whom were martyred. Upon learning of this, the Holy Prophetsa dispatched a messenger to the Roman Emperor enquiring what provoked this atrocity. Unfortunately, this messenger – Al Harasra – was intercepted at the point of Mu‘tah, captured and killed by the local governor. In response, the Holy Prophetsa dispatched an army of 3,000 men, who, by the sheer grace of Allah, forced the opposing army of over 150,000 soldiers to retreat; however, the Muslims suffered a great  loss.

Three years later in 632 AD, the Holy Prophetsa was informed by credible sources that the Romans were gathering for a battle with the Muslims. Under the command of Usamara, the Holy Prophetsa dispatched an army to confront the Byzantines at the point of gathering. The army had not completely cleared the border of Medina when the Holy Prophetsa passed away and the advancing troops halted.

Once Hazrat Abu Bakrra was elected as the Khalifa, he immediately carried out the last command of the Holy Prophetsa.  While the army was on its mission, the news of rebellion reached Medina. Suppression of the rebellion and safety of the Muslim state was of utmost importance. Musaylima had started killing Muslims in far off lands, such as Yemen and Bahrain. In addition to the rebellion by the four false prophets, some Bedouin tribes had formed a small army to attack Medina. All these rebellions had to be dealt with decisively and quickly. With his faith in God and expert military planning, the first Khalifa of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakrra struck and quashed all evil forces, pardoning the ones who sought forgiveness and punishing those who committed treason.  It would be worth the mention that not all tribes had rebelled; among the rebellious were many who remained loyal to the government at Medina and refused to fight.

During the insurgency, the Persian and Roman Empires openly sent troops to fight alongside the rebels, especially in Yemen and Bahrain. Once peace was established in Arabia, Muslim troops were deployed on the borders with the Persian and the Roman Empire, in order to reduce the chance of further attacks. This did not deter the two empires and they continued their hostilities, constantly disturbing the internal peace of Arabia. These occasional territorial aggravations were about to escalate into a war.

By the summer of 634 AD, the forces of Byzantium had gathered in a place known as Ajnadain with a mission to attack and destroy Muslims. The exact location of Ajnadain is unknown, but it appears to have been west of Jordan, not far from Jerusalem. The Byzantine army outnumbered the Muslim army by a ratio of 3:1, but when the Sword of Allah, Hazrat Khalidra bin Waleed  began executing his orders from the Khalifa to protect the Muslims and Islam from an onslaught of the Byzantine army, Allah granted a decisive victory to Muslims, expanding the Muslim governed lands further North, deeper in the Middle East. The war was far from over as Heraclius could not accept the loss and planned to attack the Arabian Peninsula in the very near future.

Before the news of victory could reach Hazrat Abu Bakrra, he departed from this world to rest at the feet of his Master, the Holy Prophet of Islam, Hazrat Muhammad Mustafasa

A background note on territorial expansion of Islam

Regarding the expansion of Islam during the period of Khilafat-e-Rashida, William Muir, a critic of Islam and a Christian historian, admits that “obligation to enforce Islam by a universal crusade had not yet dawned upon the Muslim mind.”  This is a strong observation that has eluded the modern historian, who conflates the current day situation with the pristine conduct of Khulafa-e-Rashideenra.

This situation is further exasperated by some Muslim historians who find glorification of Islam in battles rather than the true teaching of the Holy Prophetsa, which is to win the hearts of the people. They ignore one of the most basic injunctions of the Holy Quran (Ch.2: V.256); turning a blind eye to the pain when Hazrat Umarra remarked, “I desire that between Mesopotamia and the countries beyond, the hills shall be a barrier so that the Persians shall not be able to get at us, nor we at them … I would prefer the safety of my people to thousands of spoils and further conquest.” (William Muir, The Caliphate, p. 120).

A person expecting a sharp rise in conversions to Islam during the 7th century will be awarded with disappointment, as less than 10% of the population was Muslim in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, well into the 10th century (Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, pp. 46-47 [1991]). The reasons for conversion are various and will be discussed towards the end of the article.

Two wings of a bird

The two superpowers that remained a constant threat to Islam and Muslims in Arabia, Byzantine (Romans) and the Sasanian (Persians), were not about to back down. After having lost at the hands of the Muslim army, while meddling with Arabian state affairs at Bahrain, the Persians were gathering the armies to strike a decisive blow to Muslims once and for all. 

The call for help from the Byzantine front was received by Hazrat Abu Bakrra on his death bed who commanded Hazrat Umarra to send reinforcements immediately.  The Emperor Heraclius had left Constantinople (Istanbul) and was heading to Damascus in a bid to crush the Muslims. Having been offered an olive branch several times, he had always chosen the sword, hence forcing the Muslims to defend themselves. 

Over a period of several months, lasting most of 636 AD, the Muslims forces fought the enemy in Damascus and Jordan, with the decisive victory being delivered at the Battle of Yarmuk, the river that marks the border between modern day Syria and Jordan. It was a tough battle which proved victorious for Muslims who, in addition to winning Syria and Damascus, successfully pushed the Byzantine army out of the heart of their Empire. 

The Patriach (pope) of Jerusalem surrendered the city to Hazrat Umarra himself.  Hazrat Alira was in-charge of negotiating a peace treaty with the Christians, who were guaranteed freedom of faith, among other civil liberties that did not exist before. Some time after taking Jerusalem, Hazrat Umarra invited the Jewish families expelled from the city by the Byzantines to live in Jerusalem once again. He himself took the initiative of restoring the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by the Romans.

The Byzantine Empire did not look favourably upon any non-Orthodox Christians.  Theirs was the only way to salvation. Those with other faiths were regarded as criminals and termed as the “children of Satan” (Alexander A Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, p. 148 [1952]). The era of Muslim rule was gratifying for the inhabitants of Emesa (Homs) and Damascus, Palestine and Syria.  The recognition of Monophysite Christians, Nestorian Christians, Orthodox Christians, Samaritans and Judeans as having a legitimate religion and equal civil and religious rights was a matter of great joy for them.  This resulted in the Quranic injunction that teaches many paths to salvation (Ch.2: V.213-214) and does not permit religious persecution.

The threat, however, was far from over. Shortly after Byzantine forces were driven out of Syria, the Muslims learnt of massive military activity in Egypt, one of the provinces of the Byzantine Empire.  After the demise of Heraclius, his son and his widow – Empress Martina – had started a military buildup with the intent of attacking Palestine and Syria. Amrra bin al-Aas was granted permission to attack the troops and stop them in Egypt. This was neither an easy task nor an opportune time as a plague had broken out in Syria (Plague of Amwas) and had thinned the Muslim forces by about 25,000.

With a small army of about 4,000 people, Muslims embarked on a daring expedition. In a peaceful takeover of eastern Egypt, they found two major allies – the Coptics and the Jews in their battle against the oppressors. In a little over a year, Egypt was won and the last of the Byzantine forces that threatened to annihilate the Muslims was overpowered.

While the Byzantine war was raging on the Northern front, the Persian Empire was busy reinforcing its troops. The Muslims had entered a peace agreement with the Persians twice, but that did not stop them from causing constant agitation in the Muslim State. The Persian king – Yazdegerd III – continued inciting people in the surrounding territories to revolt against Medina. Observing the situation, Hazrat Umarra sent a delegation to meet the king at Midian. The king received the delegation but humiliated them in the court. After repeated violations of the peace treaty, Hazrat Umarra decided to fight them. The first battle that ensued was that at Tustar, which Muslims won. The decisive battle took place at the point of Nihawand where the Muslim army of 30,000 faced a Persian army of 150,000!  The Persians were fortified in a castle; the Muslim commander, Hazrat Numanra, tactically drew them out of their fortified position towards a narrow passage between two mountains. This proved to be fatal for the Persians. With no army to resist and the king in hiding, Persia came under Muslim control in a matter of days. 

Within a decade, during the Khilafat of Hazrat Umarra, the forces that threatened Medina were neutralised; for the time being, an attack on the Arabian soil would prove difficult. The people under the Muslim dominion found themselves content with freedoms that did not exist before. Jews and Christians could worship in public, maintain their own religious buildings and have their own religious organisations. In return for being excused from military service, which was expected of all Muslims, they had to pay a tax, the jizya, as their contribution towards the defense of the state. Such communities became known as the dhimma (protected people) who enjoyed unconditional legal and military protection by the Muslim Government. For any Muslim government to violate the protected status of such dhimma was a serious crime. The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa was recorded as saying: “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his accuser on the Day of Judgment.”

In 644 AD, Hazrat Umarra was martyred by a Persian slave with a personal grudge. The electoral council chose Hazrat Usmanra as his successor.

Hardly half a year had passed since the election of the new Khalifa, Hazrat Usmanra that the revolt began in the Persian lands. The exiled Persian king Yazdegerd III deployed spies who travelled through Persia, inciting the population to revolt. Hazrat Usmanra took a decisive step, clearing the territory of all insurgent influences and as a matter of strategic necessity to prevent further attacks, he posted the Muslim forces on the borders of Afghanistan, Turkistan and Khurasan, which were now annexed to the Muslim domain. 

The Persian Empire had been subdued; they would impose a threat no more. Not the ones to be outdone, the Byzantine Empire now struck.

Roman Emperor Constantine I chose Byzantium as the site for the new “Rome” with Constantinople (Istanbul) as its capital. This was in 330 AD, five years after the Council of Nicaea where Constantine had established Christianity as Rome’s official religion.

In 364 AD, Emperor Valentinian I divided the empire into western and eastern sections, putting himself in power in the west and his brother Valens in the east. It was the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire, that clashed with the Muslims in the seventh century. Before the war with the Arab Muslims, an impressive geographical area boasted their pride; the pride which now demanded that the nomads from Arabia should be thrown back to oblivion. The war with Arabia had proven costly for the Roman Empire. Despite losses of massive proportions, they had not accepted defeat and waited for an opportune moment to strike back.

The demise of Hazrat Umarra provided them with such an opportunity. Or so they thought.

Encouraged by the outlaying communities of the former Byzantine Empire, they launched a massive military operation against the Muslims. Overwhelmed and taken by surprise, the Governor of Syria Hazrat Muawiyara asked the Khalifa Usmanra for help and received thousands of troops in response. 

The first victory was the battle of the Masts off the Lycian coast in 655 AD, where the Muslims won a decisive naval victory over the Byzantines. It was a victory on two major fronts. It drove the elite Roman forces out of their stronghold and it initiated the formation of the first Muslim navy to protect the nation against further Byzantine attacks. 

On the North African front, the last of the Roman strongholds that revolted had to be eliminated, and places as far as Tripoli fell to the rule of the Muslims. Finally, the Byzantium dreams to eliminate the Muslim dominion were crushed. The Byzantines were pushed back to Costantipole and, suffering from internal warfare, would not face the Muslims for another century and that too for very different reasons.

With Muslim ruled land ranging from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, the Arabian tribes migrating en masse to far flung lands and non-Arabs coming into ever increasing contact with the Muslims, there were massive administrative challenges. Hazrat Usmanra, an excellent administrator, kept abreast of issues and needs of his constituents, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, by establishing a system of inspection throughout the Muslim dominion and initiated systems to protect the public from market fluctuations in response to supply and demand of the economy. In addition to investing in infrastructure such as roads, buildings and rest stops, he formalised the civil and military service pay codes.

With the expansion of the dominion, the Arabic language was evolving and the issue of the standardisation of the Holy Quran came to being. The Holy Quran was written down in script and arranged in order during the life of the Holy Prophetsa; and the collection of all the sources into one standard book was completed during the life of the first Khalifa, Hazrat Abu Bakrra, who was helped by Hazrat Umarra.  Alarmed by the reports of mispronounced recitation of the Holy Quran, Hazrat Usmanra tasked a former scribe, Hazrat Zaidra bin Thabit and some other prominent members of the Quraish to produce a standard copy of the text, as spoken in the dialect of the Quraish. Multiple copies of the original were made and sent to major cities in the Islamic domain, such as Damascus, Basra and Kufa.

All the while the progression of Islam continued an impressive climb, the opposing forces worked to undermine the success of Khilafat. In the year 656 AD, Hazrat Usmanra was martyred and Hazrat Alira was elected as the Khalifa. As foretold by the Holy Prophetsa almost three decades ago, the Khilafat of Hazrat Alira ibn abi Talib would be the last for another thousand years!

The war clouds could be seen over the deserts of Arabia, but Hazrat Alira did not take pride in the vast resources of Arabia under his command or the ample weaponry or army that it had built over the past decades. He turned his attention towards Allah and sought refuge in Him. His reign was short but one hallmarked with traits of previous khulafa. During his lifetime, the centre of Khilafat was moved from Medina to Kufa.

The martyrdom of Hazrat Usmanra had left a deep wound in the hearts of Muslims and the safety of citizens, from Tripoli to Damascus to Medina, was of paramount importance. Hazrat Alira promptly established a police force and continued to invest in the infrastructure throughout the dominion. The expanded dominion, new Muslims with foreign dialects and languages, and social issues of new kinds awaited the new Khalifa. 

Although the standardised calligraphy of the Holy Quran was compiled during the time of Hazrat Usmanra, the standard pronunciation of the Holy Quran, without any doubt to the meaning of the words, was of paramount importance. The Holy Quran was revealed in a poetic form in a culture that valued language and particularly poetry. It was during the time of Hazrat Alira that the codification of the Holy Quran with rules of qirat [recitation] was standardised. Rules of recitation were firmed up and Arabic grammar, as a subject, was first taught.

Growing up in the house of the Prophetsa, Hazrat Alira had a unique understanding of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah. His knowledge and wisdom was such that the Holy Prophetsa declared him to be the “Seal of all Knowledge”, or a person whose wisdom could not be surpassed. The depth of his religious knowledge was so profound that all three Khulafa-e-Rashideen called upon his aid in various legal problems.

Hazrat Alira was an exceptional jurist who evolved ijtihad to new heights. Ijtihad refers to exercising independent juristic reasoning to provide answers where the Holy Quran and Sunnah are silent. This would apply mostly to social conditions and not religious issues. The concept of ijtihad can be traced to the sixth century Hijrah when the Holy Prophetsa appointed Hazrat Muazra bin Jabal as the jurist to Yemen. 

His eloquent speech and sermons form an integral part of general Islamic culture.  A large number of his sermons, letters, commentary and narrations are contained in a book titled Nahj al-Balaghah (The Peak of Eloquence). A major portion of the book contains a lengthy discussion on the balance between rights and duties. 

The period of Khilafat-e-Rashida came to a sudden end one fateful day during Ramadan of 661 AD when Hazrat Alira was martyred while praying in the mosque in Kufa. This was a turning point in history of Islam and the beginning of a new chapter with Hazrat Muawiyyara as the first Umayyad Khalifa. During the period of Khilafat-e-Rashida, the khalifa was chosen for his piety and virtue; however, from the Umayyad period onward, it became a dynasty with khilafat being passed down based on blood relations.

Under the Umayyads, the migration of Arab tribes continued throughout the dominion as it had for the past twenty years. Individual Christians and Jews, depending on their own experience with Muslims, their interests and prejudices, portrayed Islam in very different ways. Few wrote about their interactions. None of the writers used the words Islam or Muslim; instead they spoke of Saracens, Arabs, Turks, Pagans, Moors, or simply those who followed the law of Muhammadsa.

As Arabic became the dominant language of the new Muslim Empire and as conversion to Islam facilitated entry into government service, growing numbers of Christians started converting to Islam. Towards the middle of the eighth century, leaders of the Christian communities started looking on with alarm and sought ways to stem the conversions. They felt an urgent need to convince Christians not to convert. Islam had to be explained to an average Christian as evil. This led to defamatory biographies of the Holy Prophetsa, something that soon becomes a staple of anti-Muslim polemics.

Various apocalyptic traditions had long predicted mass conversions to a “false” religion. Just as Jews had used these traditions to explain the successes of Christianity, now both Christians and Jews employed them to explain those of Islam. Islam became a manifestation of the Antichrist and there was a surge of apocalyptic activity among the Jews and Christians living in the Muslim Empire.

Among the Jews, for example, Abu Isa of Isfahan in the early eighth century claimed to be a prophet and the Messiah, his movement thriving for almost a century. The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, an extremely popular work originally written in Syria around 692, was translated into many languages to deter Christians from leaving their faith. The central theme of the book (and most, if not all apocalyptic literature) was that the Muslims were made to rule over the Christians not because God loved the Muslims, but because the Christians had sinned exceedingly. The idea was to convince the average Christian that the Muslim presence was permanent, at least until the apocalyptic end was ushered in and the Messiah revived the glory of Rome.

However, the expansion of the Muslim dominion into an empire and the freedom of faith in the early part of the rule up until around the 11th century, meant that the apocalyptic efforts of the Christians were mostly in vain and Islam, as a religion, spread at a much greater speed with people entering its domain on their own free will.

As time moved forward and the Umayyad rule fell to the Abassid and eventually to the Ottoman, the teaching of love for many turned towards the sword and the words of the Holy Quran, for many more, were lost in the dust of greed. It was not until the 19th Century that the prophetic words of the Holy Prophetsa came to being and the Messiah was raised so that the people of the world would see their God once again. 

This Messiah was to break the sword and win the hearts of each man, woman and child on this planet. Today, the Ahmadiyya institution of Khilafat is a manifestation of the teachings of the Holy Quran, a guidance for anyone who wishes for peace to reside in their heart. 

Primary sources used for this article:

Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, History of Islam. Darussalam, 2000.

Ahmad ibn Yahya Al-Baladhuri, Origins of Islamic State (Kitab futuh al-Buldan). Columbia, 1916.

David Nicolle, The Great Islamic Conquests AD 632-750. Osprey, 2009.

William Muir, The Caliphate – Its Rise, Decline and Fall. Edinburgh, 1924.

N Saifi, An Outline of Early Islamic History. Tabshir, Rabwah.

Shibli Naumani, Al-Farook. Dar-ul-Ishaat (Urdu Translation).

Al-Tabari, History of al-Tabari (Tarikh al-rusul wal-muluk).Suny, 1993.

Encyclopedia of Islam. Brill Publishing

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